As more and more adults are vaccinated against COVID-19, it appears life will slowly get back to normal.
Many K-12 schools have moved to a modified face-to-face or hybrid schedule with some students remaining solely online. Higher education is a mix of the same as some students, faculty, and staff are choosing, or being required to head back to campus.
There is a certain sense of excitement as we believe that we can safely enter public spaces and interact with others. There is a collective exhale as educational systems are thankful that we can get back to normal.
The challenge in this is that normal wasn’t working for everyone. The coronavirus upended our societies and systems. It exacted a heavy toll as we lost loved ones while spending months sequestered in our own homes. The rhythms of life in educational systems have changed drastically.
The truth is that the coronavirus also presented us with an opportunity. The global pandemic peeled back layers of our society and showed where the faults exist. This time has laid bare many of the weaknesses and inequities in society. Hopefully, we’ve learned something from this. If our focus is on getting back to normal…we’re missing an opportunity.
Some things went well as we think about the impact of the coronavirus on our educational systems from Pre-K up through higher education. The “How” of teaching will forever change…now we need the “why” to also change.
In some instances, a concerted effort has been made to focus more on digital and hybrid pedagogy. We’ve allowed spaces for creative uses of some educational technologies. Educators have been provided with the latitude to experiment and reinvent systems, albeit out of necessity. This examination has caused a rethinking of online and offline pedagogy to make the learning process more student-centered, innovative, and flexible.
In some instances, educators have moved beyond replicating a physical class or lecture as a digital facsimile. Digital, collaborative tools have been used to examine opportunities to support collaboration, engagement, inclusive pedagogy, and personalized learning. Academic seat time will make way for purpose-driven learning. We can only hope that traditional notions of attendance will drop, and a focus on engagement will grow. Assessment and evaluation will focus on meaningful hybrid learning.
For many, the wall of text in our classrooms is coming down. Educators often privilege peer-reviewed information that has been published in traditional formats. This means that the most valued text in classrooms is standard academic English that is printed in books, textbooks, journals, and magazines that we can hold in our hands. Educators are increasingly seeing the value of multimodal information (image, video, audio, hyperlinks, infographics) to support learning retention and accessibility. This is key for English Language Learners, special education students, and kids with attention difficulties.
Online teaching is no more an option, it is a necessity. Online learning, remote working, and e-collaborations tools have taken off. In this same vein, we’ve re-examined our use of time, and the desire to hold regular face-to-face meetings, sometimes for the sake of holding meetings. Expectations for flexibility, differentiated assessment, and rhizomatic integration will expand.
STEM and STEAM will gain more appreciation. The focus on technology in our lives and opportunities to support learners in these fields will gain much more attention. These seeds will take root and flourish. This is also true for the health sciences.
For some, parent-educator collaboration was strengthened by necessity. Often times in our schools, there is a disconnect between what is happening in the classroom. There are a variety of reasons for this challenge. As the coronavirus disrupted our lives and shut down parts of society, parents had the opportunity to sit by their child and peer into the classroom. In my home, my partner and I took turns helping our children with schoolwork, while also bonding over the development of some life skills. This may not be true for all, but it was one ray of sunlight in our existence over the last year.
Individuals saw more opportunities in immersive technology, gaming, and e-sports. Not only did weekly family Zoom calls become an occurrence in our home, but also the opportunities for gaming online with friends and family. As we were less likely to hang out with others in public, some individuals were more likely to game online and consume content with others.
Many more things did not go well at all and provide us with an opportunity to reinvent teaching, learning, and assessment.
Connectivity has become more important than textbooks. Access to the Internet has been shown to be not equally distributed across society and unacceptable for many learners. The digital divide may widen the gaps of inequality. Educational institutions must build resilience in their systems to ensure and prioritize access for students, faculty, and staff.
Infrastructure needs to be so strong that it can provide unhindered services during and after the crisis. Infrastructure is the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. A robust information technology infrastructure is a prerequisite for online learning. For our learning systems, this infrastructure needs to be so strong that it can provide unhindered services during and after a crisis. We need a high level of preparedness so that we can quickly adapt to the changes in the environment and can adjust ourselves to different delivery modes, for instance, remote learning or online learning in situations of pandemics such as Covid-19.
Mental and physical health has suffered greatly during the pandemic. Our learning institutions often serve as a safety net for large portions of our society. Students from Pre-K up through higher education have access to services from food to mental health, to social attachments. For some students, school is the one safe space they go to each day. Many individuals (I’m speaking for myself) struggled with a more sedentary lifestyle during the pandemic. Creating digital facsimiles of physical classrooms also creates an expectation they sit with computers all day in Zoom or Google Meet sessions.
Data privacy concerns will draw greater interest as learning environments are increasingly targeted. K-12 institutions will see more high-profile school breaches. Attackers will capitalize on distance learning. Districts will grapple with data privacy and sustainability.
The effectiveness of online learning may vary amongst age groups. In watching my two children adapt to online learning, I’ve noticed that for children, a structured environment is required. Learners, especially younger ones get more easily distracted. For students in my higher ed classes, there are also challenges in remaining focused when expected to keep their camera and mic on for most of the day as they sit engaged. To get the full benefit of online learning, there needs to be a concerted effort to provide structure, while going replicating a physical class/lecture through video capabilities. Instead, we need to develop a range of tools, skills, and practices that promote collaboration, engagement, reflection, and autonomy.
In many of our institutions, we are forced to practice online learning and prove that students are getting the same value as if they were face-to-face. The truth is, this is something we knew was coming. We knew a virtual pivot to online and hybrid learning models was needed. Things would have been different if we have already mastered these pedagogies. Time lost in learning the modes could have been spent on creating more content. We shifted to emergency remote teaching, and it is better late than never. The pandemic surely has accelerated the process of online learning even while many schools continue to focus on traditional academic skills and rote learning, rather than on skills such as critical thinking and adaptability,
A new normal
During this crisis, we have no other alternative other than adapting to dynamic situations and accepting change. In this, much has changed in the how of teaching, learning, and assessment. Some of this has been positive. Much more has been negative.
With all of this innovation, we need to think critically about the educational sector and reinvent the why of teaching as the how changes.
We also cannot focus on binary discussions about all (or none) students benefiting. As with all things in life, there is nuance in many of these decisions. False dichotomies brought us to this point. They should not dictate future decisions.